Authentic Italian Souvenirs Worth Buying
Our inside guide to the best Italian souvenirs covers food, fashion and fun. Say goodbye to tourist tat and buongiorno to quality reminders of your trip.
Limoncello from the Amalfi Coast
Lemons. They're all over the place in the narrow streets of olive and stone-soaked Amalfi. Lemons in baskets. Lemons on walls. Lemon shaped soap and even, if you look hard enough, lemons on trees.
Lemons on aprons, lemons on beads. Lemons on menus and even on cheese.
Yet for all the creative lemonery that the Amalfi inspires, there's one clear winner when it comes to citrus-swishing indulgence.
And it's not lemonade.
That's right, it's limoncello, a drink concocted from the core principles of lemonade (lemons and sugar) but brought to Mediterranean life by the cheeky addition of alcohol. Lemon peel (strictly speaking from the lemons of Sorrento only) cosy up to grain alcohol for a while before syrup gets involved and the party really begins.
It's served as a digestif. And an aperitif. And you'll also find it in boot-shaped glass bottles with Italia scrawled across.
But despite these levels of ostentation, it's actually refreshingly sweet. Tangy, tasty, twisty. Somehow, limoncello manages to dance around its perceived dalliances with cold and flu remedies and children's playground sherbet to emerge as a serious alternative to whisky and gin in a gentleman's oak polished drinks cabinet.
Or so it seems when you're here.
In the central courtyard of Amalfi, where fountains fizz and flagstones dazzle, fresh and wet beneath the moonlight and the sparkling shadows of the soft summer rain...well, anything sounds like a good idea.
Even a spirit called limoncello. Served in the shape of a boot.
Formed from papier-mache and decorated with gems, fur, fabric and feathers, these glamorous signs of anonymity symbolise the city's famous Carnevale.
It's easy to buy cheap Venetian masks in any tourist spot in Italy but for the real thing, seek out the talented artists in Venice itself.
Visit the workshops and ask questions. Buy off the shelf or order a custom design.
Finding an Authentic Venetian Mask
Authentic Venetian Masks are made out of cartapesta (papier mache) which is light weight and breathable. If it's made out of plastic, it was most likely produced in an industrial factory.
Beware of any made of metal and ceramic (porcelain). Over recent years these materials have become popular in trinket shops. These masks may not be made by hand and are not based on historical models. Many are not even made in Venice.
Buying directly from the mask artist ensures you're buying an authentic and traditional mask.
Venetian mask shops also have a style all their own because they are handmade. If you find yourself staring at a mask you've seen in another store, it's most likely mass produced.
The price is also a red flag. Venetian masks take hours of work and will never cost less than 10-12 euros. As long as you follow these tips, you should be safe. But most importantly, choose something you'd like. That is the main point, after all!
Can't make it to Venice? Here's an online shop I've been recommended (though haven't tested myself.)
Murano Glass, Near Venice
Murano glass comes from the Venetian island of Murano and is often described as the finest glass in the world.
Since the 13th century, the glass makers of Murano guard their secrets and furnace their wares.
When looking to buy Murano glass, actually head to the island of Murano! It's just a small fee by ferry to the island and you can visit any glass maker you want.
Finding Authentic Murano Glass
Once on Murano, steer clear of the docks, the hawkers and the touristy glass shops. The further away from the docks the better and a visit to the museum provides a handy introduction of what to look for.
When viewing pieces look for artist signatures and pay attention to the threads (the coloured bands of glass swirled into a finished piece). The more intricate the thread, the higher the price and the greater the reputation of the maker.
All Murano glass is hand-blown, so you should look for bubbles and asymmetrical qualities. Any stickers that say, "made in Italy" or "made in Venice" are unlikely to come from Murano. New glass from Murano also comes with a certificate from the factory.
It seems strange, really, for Italy to have such a reputation for cashmere since the product hails from goats native to Kashmir. But that's fashion, I suppose.
Most modern production now takes place in Mongolia, Afghanistan, Iran and northern China but it's what Italy does with it that transforms it from goat to gazelle.
The region of Perugia in Italy has become the king of cashmere craft, with a long and proud tradition of artisan crafts. Luisa Spagnoli had the bright idea of breeding Angora rabbits and then combing their hair to obtain wool for spinning and the textile industry is one of the main components of Perugia's economy.
Various places run workshops in English and Italian where you can take hand-weaving courses and watch artisans use the jacquard loom.
Italians have been working with leather for thousands of years and make some of the world's best leather pieces. Today, Italy accounts for 16% of the world's leather production, with a focus around Florence.
The fashion industry loves Italian leather for its beauty and long-lasting strength. Italian leather uses vegetable ingredients, which is why the leather is so resistant, elastic and smooth. The tanning process is a well guarded secret.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
In Florence, plenty of shops and boutiques stock unique leather goods. Artisanal Benheart, Cellerini and Misuri, in particular, come highly recommended.
To find more affordable leather good look in the small shops, outdoor stalls and open-air markets. You can find more one-of-a-kind pieces by visiting some of the smaller villages such as Orvieto, Pitigliano and San Gimignano. Here you'll find smaller artisan shops with high quality unique items.
When looking to buy, use these tips to spot inferior leather and knock-off pieces. The first sign of inferior leather is if the piece has a chemical smell. Also, carefully inspect the stitching, grommets, tags and other details for imperfections. A good leather piece will be perfect down to the smallest detail as far as crafting is concerned.
Finally, look for the "Made in Italy" tag for authenticity and check with a local or a clerk at your hotel for recommendations and advice.
The Best Italian Souvenirs: Food!
Balsamic vinegar, occasionally shortened to balsamic, is a very dark, concentrated, and intensely flavoured vinegar from Italy. It's made wholly or partially from grape must: freshly crushed grape juice with the skins, seeds and stems.
Balsamic's perfect balance of sweet and sour ensures it is just as good on salads, meats and parmesan as on strawberries or custard.
However, not every balsamic can be truly balsamic. Only vinegar made in the Reggio Emilia and Modena provinces, following strict rules laid out by local consortia, can use the name aceto balsamico tradizionale (traditional balsamic vinegar).
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
The highest quality balsamics are labeled Aceto Balsamioco Tradizionale di Modena or Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia, meaning they have been produced using traditional methods.
Reading Balsamic vinegar of Modena is not enough to find a traditionally produced product, plenty of mass produced cheap imitations exist.
Look for vinegar with an age of at least twelve years.
Always check the list of ingredients. If "must" is first, this is a good start. This vinegar will be thick and have complex and sweet flavours. If vinegar is listed first, that usually points to little or no ageing and is primarily used for de-glazing or balsamic reduction.
Who can resist the strong, slightly nutty, slightly pungent taste of a porcini mushroom?! Well, lots of people - my husband included - but I love them!
Porcini mushrooms are mycorrhizal, which means they have a symbiotic relationship with the roots of other plants. This also makes them hard to cultivate and difficult to find fresh.
The most sought after sub-species is the Boletus edulis, or the king bolete. This is also the main one that people are talking about when they say porcini.
Although they're most famously found in Italy, porcini also grow elsewhere in Europe and further afield in North America, New Zealand and South Africa. They can grow up to 12 inches in diameter and weigh several pounds when mature.
What to look for
- Check for a strong smell and avoid packages with too much dust or crumbled pieces .
- When buying fresh porcini, make sure to purchase only young mushrooms. A cap that is dark, soft, or covered with black spots is too mature for eating. This also applies for the underside.
- Lastly, check the stalk for small holes: worms like porcini mushrooms just as much as humans do. If you do find them, stand the mushroom on its cap and the worms will eat their way out of the stem. You may have to pick out some small worms but they are harmless and quite common. But. Ick.
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